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Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986) Sinfonia Concertante, Op.38 (1936, 1943) [29:59]
Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Cyril Scott, Op.69 (1949) [4:44] Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Consolation (1918) (W80) [6:34] Edmund RUBBRA
Violin Concerto, Op.103 (1959) [31:30]
Endré Wolf (violin)
Edmund Rubbra (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Hugo Rignold (sinfonia)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Rudolf Schwarz (concerto)
BBC broadcast 20 February 1960 (concerto), 2 May 1967 (sinfonia), 9 August 1967 (prelude, consolation). ADD/mono. LYRITA ITTER BROADCAST COLLECTION REAM1134 [72:47]
Lyrita have been digging down again in the mine that is the Itter Broadcast Collection and they have returned with more buried treasure in the form of these Rubbra performances. The two major works have been recorded in modern times and with the advantage of up to date sound but there is nonetheless great interest in these archive performances, not least in the presence of Rubbra himself at the keyboard.
As is evident from his performances here, Edmund Rubbra was no mean pianist and we learn from Paul Conway’s invaluable notes that as a teenager he had fallen under the spell of the music of Cyril Scott to such an extent that he organised a concert of music by that composer. This brought him to Scott’s attention and an invitation to receive piano lessons soon followed. Rubbra remained an enthusiast for Scott’s music and performed it on several occasions, such as his broadcast recital in August 1967. Here he gives a sensitive performance of Scott’s Consolation. The same recital contained a father tribute to his former teacher in the shape of his own Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Cyril Scott. The music of the Prelude is fluent and clear – as is Rubbra’s playing of it. The Fugue is similarly clear but Paul Conway is right to draw attention to the “stern formality” of the music.
The Sinfonia Concertante was Rubbra’s first major work for a solo instrument and orchestra though apparently a work entitled ‘Concerto’ for piano and orchestra, dating from around 1930, was allocated the catalogue number Op 30 but remained in manuscript. Rubbra himself played the solo part when the Sinfonia Concertante was first performed, at a 1945 Prom, and here he returns as soloist for this broadcast performance. Cast in three movements, it’s a most interesting work but, for all its excellence as music, I can understand why it has not made much headway: its tone is serious throughout and though the solo part is challenging the work is no crowd-pleasing display piece. The work has received just one commercial recording, I believe. It was included in Richard Hickox’s survey of the Rubbra symphonies for Chandos; then the soloist was Howard Shelley (review). The Shelley/Hickox recording is self-recommending as a version that fully reveals the work because this present Lyrita recording has the piano very much in the foreground with the orchestra rather opaquely heard behind the soloist. The recording doesn’t impart a great deal of vitality or perspective to the orchestral sound. Furthermore, though the CBSO of 1967 does a valiant job in unfamiliar music there are occasions when the intonation reminds us that the CBSO of 2017 is a far more proficient unit: a prime example is the short oboe-led interlude in the second movement. By contrast, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales can be heard to much better advantage in every respect in the Chandos recording.
That said, the Rubbra/Rignold performance is a strong one, bringing out the dark eloquence of the work, and there’s considerable interest to be had from hearing the composer playing in one of his own major works. The first movement, Fantasia, is earnest in tone and contains a good deal of powerful music. The second movement is entitled Saltarella. Though the music is dance-like it’s quite fierce at times and even suggests not so much a dance as a Totentanz. Midway through (2:59-3:40) there’s the brief slower passage to which I referred in the previous paragraph. It provides a momentary pause in the dance but no real respite; I don’t quite know what to make of it. The vehement music then resumes.
The finale, a Prelude and Fugue, is inscribed to the memory of Gustav Holst, Rubbra’s influential teacher and close friend. The Prelude is elegiac and deeply felt, leading to a passionate climax. The Fugue is introduced by the woodwind (5:22) and the orchestra develops the fugue at some length: it’s not until 7:57 that the piano joins them. From this point on the music is intense, albeit Rubbra doesn’t often raise his voice. Apart from a final soft orchestral chord it’s the piano which has the last word and, as Paul Conway observes, this ending is “deeply affecting.” The Sinfonia Concertante may not be a crowd-pleaser but it’s a sincere and impressive composition.
So, too, is the Violin Concerto. I know of two other recordings. There’s a 2004 Naxos recording by Krysia Osostowicz which I have not heard though I see that several of my colleagues thought well of it (review). The version which I have is the one which I believe was the work’s debut on disc: a 1993 Conifer Classics recording by Tasmin Little and Vernon Handley (review). To the best of my knowledge that recording is no longer available, which is a pity. In passing, I wonder if Tasmin Little has ever returned to the concerto.
This Lyrita issue is particularly interesting because the performance was given by the same artists who had given the first performance in the Royal Festival Hall on 17 February. Paul Conway tells us that the BBC broadcast the concert that included this premiere and then, just three days later, they broadcast another performance from their Maida Vale studios. What extraordinary promotion of a new work!
Like the Sinfonia Concertante, the concerto is less about display and more about the development and discussion of ideas. In the first of its three movements the tone is serious and the solo part largely consists of cantabile writing. The soloist approaches the cadenza via a line that includes many trills and the cadenza itself (12:17-13:59) rather appropriately also ends with a series of trills. This cadenza is thoughtful rather than an opportunity for virtuosic display. The coda, which follows immediately, is short and quite abrupt.
The first movement is impressive but it’s the slow movement that takes the palm, I think. After a dark-hued orchestral introduction the serene violin entry (1:59) is well worth the wait. As Paul Conway puts it, the soloist’s entry brings “instant solace”. The movement features lyrical, singing music and always with an air of patrician dignity. This is a poetic and very fine movement of genuine depth. The Allegro giocoso finale is much shorter than either of the previous movements. It’s the most extrovert and cheerful part of the work. Paul Conway quotes some appreciative comments that Cyril Scott made to Rubbra after both of the initial performances of the concerto. These quotes continue one of this disc’s themes, namely the link between the two composers. However, I think it’s worth also throwing into the mix another verdict on the concerto, quoted by Robert Layton in his notes for the Conifer recording. This was the verdict of Neville Cardus: “In your concerto I felt a deeply experiencing nature at work, with an artist-musician and a craftsman shaping conceptions into recognizably fine music.” Just so.
It remains only to add that the Hungarian-born Endré Wolf is a most persuasive advocate for the concerto and he receives sterling support from Schwarz and the BBC Symphony. Though this recording is seven years older than the recording of the Sinfonia Concertante – which I suspect may have been made at a concert in Birmingham Town Hall – the earlier recording offers the better sound because it has the advantage that it was made in the BBC studio.
Inevitably, these mono recordings, which are fifty years old and more, have sonic limitations. However, Richard Itter’s recording equipment captured them well from the broadcasts. The transfers have been successfully done. These performances are of great interest and value to all those who appreciate the art of this very fine English composer.